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Tax-loophole users should feel like targets

Grassley hunts down too-sweet deals.


Des Moines Register

January 22, 2007

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

The country is lucky to have Sen. Charles Grassley as ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. He brings Iowa common sense to where it's desperately needed: tax policy.

The most recent example of his down-to-earth attitude: questioning the tax deductibility of contributions used to finance college and university athletics.

Federal law permits 80 percent of the rental cost for premium seats at college games to be deductible on an annual basis because the schools are "nonprofit" educational facilities. Some of the money goes to pay for coaches' salaries.

Most taxpayers probably aren't too keen about helping fund University of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz's $2.7 million annual pay. And it's hard to believe buying a luxury skybox for as much as $85,000 is a charitable gift that improves education.

In that case, taxpayers are essentially subsidizing recreation for the rich.

Of course, Grassley's questions might not make him too popular in fancy campus offices around the country. Universities use the donated dollars to fund projects such as the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls. Administrators are concerned about any possible loss of funding.

Eliminating ridiculous tax breaks doesn't make a person popular in some quarters.

Grassley knows this.

He was the subject of a New York Times article last year titled "The Man Museums Love to Hate" after he spearheaded the tightening of tax rules for "partial gifts" that allowed collectors to give art to museums over a period of years. Donors got to keep the art on their walls while it increased in value, and they enjoyed a tax deduction year after year.

He's making hospitals nervous, too. A few hospitals paying high CEO salaries and hounding the poor to pay bills caught his attention. Since then, he's questioned several hospitals around the country, inquiring about how they spend their money and how much charity care they provide. He wants to ensure they earn the nonprofit status all taxpayers pay for.

Then there's the "tax breaks for taxidermy" loophole Grassley closed. Hunters would go on an African safari, kill an animal, have it stuffed and donate it to a museum, deducting some or all of the cost of their hunting vacation. Now hunters can deduct only the market value of the trophy or the cost of taxidermy, whichever is less.

Stopping that scam prompted another of Grassley's fun quotes on cheating the public purse: "It's ridiculous that a museum gets pennies for a dusty boar's head sitting in a railway car, while a donor gets big tax breaks for his African safari," he said in a statement. "We're taking the tax cheating out of taxidermy."

Tax breaks abound. Some are justified. Some are questionable. Some are egregious. All cost money.

It takes common sense and sometimes courage to challenge those that are abuses. More power to Iowa's senior senator.